The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency this week formally outlawed four-wheeling in Aetna Mountain's Cummings Cove Wildlife Management Area.
Agency spokesman Dan Hicks said the state soon will start warning and citing off-roaders, then begin reclaiming miles of eroded trails.
"We realized a lot of pollution [caused by the eroding trails] starts on our property and rolls down on other people's property," he said. "As a natural resources agency, we thought it was incumbent on us to do anything we can to make it right."
But some Chattanoogans question whether the catalyst was erosion or the big-dollar Black Creek Development nearby that has received public money to make a new road up Aetna Mountain.
The proposed $500 million development is expected to create what amounts to a new city covering about 1,200 of the 3,000 acres atop the mountain. Until now, Aetna largely has been a four-wheeling playground.
The remaining undeveloped land will be split up into trusts for preservation, much of it managed by the TWRA.
April Eidson, a former state environmental regulator who now belongs to a watchdog group known as Little Chicago Watch, has criticized Chattanooga and Hamilton County leaders for approving $9 million in tax increment financing to pay for the road.
This week she also criticized the TWRA for locking out recreational four-wheeling on state-owned property.
"They contend a mudslide was due to those [four-wheeling] activities. If that was the case, a management program could have stopped it, but instead they just locked the door. It's got a lot of odor to it," Eidson said.
The mudslide in late February 2011 washed out of an area known as the "peanut butter hole" where all-terrain riders often went mudding.
A plug of mud swirled down an Aetna Mountain creek and plopped into the middle of U.S. Highway 41, then into the Tennessee River where it created sandbars.
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation field regulators tracked the slide to the top of Aetna where Tennessee Valley Authority transmission lines cross the mountain, an area scarred with the ruts of off-road vehicles.
That was when what had begun as a turf war between developers of Black Creek and a cadre of four-wheelers suddenly morphed into an environmental degradation issue.
TWRA announced its plan to begin enforcing a no-four-wheeler policy Tuesday night in a law office meeting with the wildlife management area's neighbors.
"This reeks of impropriety for TWRA to have an exclusive meeting and exclude the public from the conversation," Eidson said.
Hicks said TWRA held public meetings several months ago when the concerns first arose. He said Tuesday's meeting was just a "good neighbor" move to let adjoining property owners learn what TWRA plans before they read it in the newspaper.
Doug Stein, one of the Black Creek developers and a local road contractor, said Black Creek doesn't have anything to do with TWRA's decision.
He said developers likely will begin work on the new road in the spring.
Jeff Perlaky, who owns property adjoining the wildlife management area, said he wasn't surprised by the TWRA ruling.
"My biggest concern is that the access to my property is by Aetna Mountain Road, which the development has blocked."
Perlaky sued to keep the road open and won, but he said the road still is marked with a no-trespassing sign posted by TWRA.
"They've verbally promised to remove it, but that's yet to happen," Perlaky said.
Hicks said once the four-wheeling is stopped and reclamation begins, TWRA will begin to develop a plan for specific four-wheeling trails that will not cause erosion but serve hunters and other recreational use.
Those trails will differ from the competitive rock climbs and mudhole pits now used by ATVers that include a special rock-climbing buggy known as the Aetna Mountain Buggy.
"The new trails will have to fit into the reclamation plan," Hicks said.